A general agreement among scholars about the status of the Apocrypha is a long way off, as some consider the Apocrypha equal to canonised Scripture while others are horrified at the idea. The Muratorian canon concludes with two apocalypses, that of John and Peter – though some were not willing that the latter should be read in church. There is also a list of excluded books, as well as several books in today’s New Testament that are not mentioned in the Muratorian canon.
The historian Eusebius gives attention to the history of the Bible, yet is inconsistent in his listing of approved books, and seems reluctant to declare with finality the status of some writings.
While some scholars hold that the Apocrypha contain nothing new or significant doctrinally, Oersterley has a somewhat higher view of them: “In the Apocrypha belief in God is identical with that of the Old Testament in its most highly developed form.”
There is no clear evidence that Jesus or the apostles ever quoted any Apocryphal works as Scripture. The Jewish community that produced them repudiated them, and the historical surveys in the apostolic sermons recorded in Acts completely ignore the period they cover. Even the sober, historical account of 1 Maccabees is tarnished by numerous errors and anachronisms.
There is nothing of theological value in the Apocryphal books that cannot be duplicated in canonical Scripture, and they contain much that runs counter to its teachings. Though some of the books may be deemed to have historical value, the authors’ eagerness to dramatise some events and their use of the material for didactic purposes mean that caution must be exercised in accepting the texts.
Nevertheless the Apocrypha have value, even if it is only the same value as any other literature, in that they do provide a source of information for the study of the intertestamental period.
CATCH THE WIND
Trying to evaluate the Apocrypha is somewhat akin to trying to catch the wind. Is it fair to say that these writings are important documents in tracing the development of popular Christianity and in reflecting the beliefs of the authors? Some think so: “The Apocrypha are of immense importance for historical research into Judaism during the period of the Second Temple (515 B.C. –A.D. 70)” declares Harper’s Bible Dictionary.
Others focus more on the writings themselves, and the effect that they have on their readers: “Although not considered canonical in Protestant and Hebrew Bibles, these books have profoundly inspired Jews and Christians alike,” says Bowker.
It is certainly true and fair to say that many writings outside the Bible may inspire us, but does the Apocrypha have any relevance and use for Christianity today?
Harper’s Bible Dictionary believes that, “As a result of their place in the Christian Old Testament, the Apocrypha have a potential role in the ecumenical movement as groups of Christians seek for the means of communication with one another.”
It is highly unlikely that general agreement about the status of the Apocrypha will ever be reached since scholars and churches abound at each end of the argument. But there is an alternative. It may not be possible to catch the wind, but it is very possible to ride the wind.
THE JURY IS OUT
In the spring of 1947 an Arab shepherd chanced upon a cave in the hills overlooking the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea that contained what has been called “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times”. The documents and fragments of documents found in those caves, dubbed the “Dead Sea Scrolls”, included a few books of the Apocrypha. Regarded as dead by some, they did not want to lie down!
Experts abound on both sides of the argument about the Apocrypha, and a middle course seems a safe route to take while the issue is as contentious as it is today. It seems appropriate to accept the Apocrypha as interesting, and possibly inspiring, literature. It seems equally appropriate that they ought not to be regarded as equal to the Scriptures according to the commonly agreed canon, and it would therefore be advisable not to publicly read them or teach from them as if they were equal to Scripture.
The Apocrypha are among the resources available to Christians today, and they should be seen as exactly that. If unnecessary controversy is to be avoided, these writings should be handled sparingly, and with great care. Riding the wind may be enjoyable, but it is not without its risks.
In the meantime, the jury is still out over the status of the Apocrypha, and it doesn’t look as though it will be returning a verdict for quite some considerable time.
M’Caw and Motyer, The New Bible Commentary, The Psalms, London, IVP, Revised Edition, 1970
Bruce M Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament, Oxford, Clarendon Press, Corrected edition, 1988
New International Dictionary of Theology, General Editor: Colin Brown, Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1986
John Bowker, Complete Handbook of the Bible, London, Dorling Kindersley, 1998
Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Edited by Paul J Achtemeier, Harper & Row, 1986
W O E Oesterley, An Introduction To The Books of the Apocrypha, London, Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935
Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, London, Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd., 1851.
Robert J Sargent, Canonization: The Apocrypha, Quotations from extracts on the Internet at: http://watch.pair.com/apocrypha.html